Gary Vitti’s been a Laker since I was a three-year-old, when he took over prior to the 1984-85 season.
The 2015-16 season will be his last as the head athletic trainer.
Every summer, I sit down with Vitti after the draft, free agency and Summer League have concluded to look ahead to the coming-soon-enough season. Hopefully, this will continue prior to the 2016-17 season, when Vitti will remain with the Lakers to help ease the transition to the new head trainer, and into the future as he serves the organization as a consultant.
The following is a full transcription of our conversation with Vitti about his stepping down from the head job, Kobe Bryant’s 20th season, details of the soon-to-be-built new Lakers’ facility, his thoughts on Purple and Gold youngsters Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell, and more:
Mike Trudell: How did you come upon the decision to step down from the job you’ll have held for 32 years after this season?
Vitti: The plan was always to get to 62 (years old), so that I could begin to collect my NBA pension. You can start collecting at 59-and-a-half, but you get a bump if you stick it out. I had to stick it out, but I could have gone longer if I wanted to. That said, 32 years in this position is enough. I’ve spoken to my children quite a bit about it, and I’ve spoken to my wife. I kind of looked at my life as being divided into thirds. I took this job when I was 30 years old, or a third of my life until I began with the Lakers. It will be 32 years that I will have worked here, so that’s another third. My parents are 94, so theoretically I may live for another 30 years. So that’s a third, a third and a third. Two-thirds are behind me, and I’m looking to the third ahead of me to enjoy the fruits of my labor and the experiences and the memories and the relationships that I’ve had through the first 62 years of my life.
MT: What’s the plan for you after this season?
Vitti: I have a three-year contract: one more year as the head guy, and I have all the intentions of fulfilling that contract, just like I have the last 31 years of being the head guy; not with one foot out the door, but with both feet in the door. And then the year after I think the title is something like “Athletic Trainer in Residence/Special Consultant to the General Manager.” I’ll have a business card probably the size of your computer screen. I think it would be helping transition the new person into that head trainer position. Still working with the players, coaches and the new staff. I look forward to that as more of a mentorship position. Just like the term represents itself: a consultant.
MT: And I know you’ll be involved with the new training facility, set to open in a couple years…
Vitti: Yes, as a matter of fact, I think the new facility has my fingerprints all over it. Not the upstairs or the executive offices, though I’ve been in some of those meetings. But the downstairs, the actual basketball operation, the basketball courts, the weight and training rooms, the players’ lounge and locker room — the entire bottom floor where it all happens. I think that the flow of that is by my design talking to the architects and figuring out the space and how we can make it work. There does need to be a flow. I think you need to be in this business to understand how that flow should work. I think I’ll be involved in the transition to the new facility.
MT: What is that building flow that you’re seeking that an NBA team should have?
Vitti: Theoretically, you want the entry into your facility to be into the training room, so I or whoever the head athletic trainer know who’s here and who’s not. So if you walk through my room, then I see you, because I’m always going to be here before you. The weight room has to be adjacent to the practice court as well as the training room. It has to have window, so you can see what’s going on out there. Same thing with the hydrotherapy areas: the cold pools and the exercise pools. They have to be in between the weight room and the shower facility, because you don’t want water everywhere. Water needs to stay where water needs to be. If someone’s going down for the third time in the exercise pool, you’ve got to be able to see that. The players’ lounge needs to be next to the players’ locker room. And then some of the more important flow things include the film room needing to have a door from the basketball court. You don’t want your film room being back by your locker room, because you start your practice every day on the basketball court in a circle with the coach telling the players, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do today.’ And then you’ll either remain on the court or go in the film room. If you’re going into the film room and it’s back near the locker room, you’re going to start losing guys. They’re going to go to the bathroom or their locker or check their cell phone. It’s going to be like herding cats. So you really need to get them from the court into one door to the film room and then straight back out onto the basketball court. Another thing that needs to be out on the basketball area is a bathroom. It can be a small bathroom, but if somebody needs to go to the bathroom during practice, they walk through a door and there it is. If they have to go all the way back into the team shower facility, once again he’s going to stop at his locker and make a phone call. The great thing about the Rossetti architects is that they have built some other facilities and they were willing to listen and design around the flow that we’ve wanted. We’ve seen it on paper, and it’s going to be fabulous: second to none in the league.
MT: Ownership has always been willing to spend money here … the assumption would be no expense will be spared for the new building?
Vitti: I think a practice facility has a life of minimum 15 years, maximum 30. We’ve looked at all of the technology that’s coming, everything that’s here now and what other teams have done. We’ve flown around the country looking at both big-time universities, and we’ve looked at a bunch of different pro teams. We built with the attitude that we are not only looking at today’s or 2017’s team, but we’re projecting for the future and building a facility that we are so proud of that players are going to want to come here. Free agency is much like college recruiting now. So when you build something, you want all of the bells and whistles, including things like — and this may be difficult for people to understand — a barbershop with the red, white and blue pole and the whole thing. When players come to the facility, it’s all-encompassing. You can bring your dirty clothes, and the dry cleaners will come and pick it up, and by the end of practice it’s going to be hanging up in your locker. It’s a place that we want players to want to come for more than to just punch a clock. We want them to come here and stay for practice. We want them to come here, be comfortable here and this be their home away from home.
MT: What college and pro facilities did you visit in the planning process?
Vitti: We went all over. We saw the Portland Trail Blazers’ (facility), the Clippers’, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ and the University of Oregon.
MT: What other amenities will be at the facility, and who did you consult about it?
Vitti: We’ve looked at other facilities, and not only what they’ve done, but maybe more importantly what they would’ve changed if they could do it all over again. It’s pretty easy to go around and see what people do. It’s ‘What did you miss?’ or ‘What mistake have you made?’ ‘Would you have given more space for this?’ ‘Would you have sacrificed this for that?’ At the end of the day, there is a plot of land and you can fit only so much on that plot of land, especially in L.A. They sell land by the square inch here instead of the square foot. So we’ve looked at A-Z, and we put the money where we believe it counts. There are going to be lots of amenities, not only for the players and the team, but for the public. There will be an entry way into the building that will show the Laker legacy: trophies and the history of the Lakers. It should be interactive with the public. We have done a lot with the D-League team, the Los Angeles D-Fenders. They have their own area here at least double in size (of the current area). They’ll have a much better training room. They’ll have their own players’ lounge. They will play their games in our new practice facility. It’ll be like a mini-arena. There’ll be public seating there. We’ll have events there that will not just be basketball practices and D-Fenders games, but there’ll actually be events held there to bring the public into our facility and make them feel like they’re part of the family. We really have a great view of what we think this place is going to be and what it’s going to do to continue the Laker legacy.
MT: You mentioned the barber shop, and you obviously rock a bald head. Do you think when Kobe Bryant shaved his, he was influenced by you?
Vitti: (Laughs) Not even a little bit. I don’t think anybody has been inspired by my bald head. If anything, maybe people were inspired by my Afro back in the day, but certainly not my bald head.
MT: I know that both you and (VP of Public Relations) John Black used to boast huge Afros…
Vitti: When I came here in 1984, I wouldn’t have even considered it that much of an Afro. I just had some curly hair. But if you had seen me in college, that’s a whole different ball game. Dr. J had nothing on me. I had the big-time ‘fro back then. To give you an idea, I had hair very similar to Anderson Varejao — maybe even just a little bit bigger than his ‘fro. But if you’d pulled one of those curls straight, it went down past my Adam’s apple. If I picked that thing up, it looked like Angela Davis.
MT: This topic demands at least one more question: Do you think everyone gets the same amount of total head/face/body hair in their lives?
Vitti: (Laughs) No, I don’t think everybody gets the same amount of hair. I’m much hairier than you, but I’m not a really hairy guy. What’s really unfortunate, is you start your life with hair where it’s supposed to be: on your head. Then as you get older, you lose the hair on your head and it starts growing out of your nose and ears and back — other places that are unsightly.
MT: OK, let’s get to Kobe. We’ve been keeping a statistic that shows he’s fifth in all-time career regular-season plus postseason minutes spent on the court (55,415) and he’ll pass Wilt Chamberlain for fourth if he plays just four minutes. His last three seasons have ended in injury (Achilles, knee and shoulder) and he’ll be 37 on August 23. How are you thinking about his 20th season from a health standpoint?
Vitti: It’s a combination of several things. When you’re discussing minutes played over the course of a career, there’s an attrition that takes place. Your body parts change and the life of them change. You have tendons that become inflamed and become tendinitis. Then the tendinitis over time becomes tendinosis or tendinopathy. There’s cartilage that’s around the end of bones. We’re not talking about tearing a meniscus. That’s a different type of cartilage, a fibrocartilage. But the hyaline cartilage begins to wear out, and that’s what we call OA: osteoarthritis. That was part of the attrition that comes with playing that many minutes over that many years. Part two of the minutes is, every time you step on the court you’re susceptible to being injured. You’re not going to get hurt sitting on the bench. It’s when you get into the game and people start running into each other. Point three is the game itself is moving at a very, very high rate of speed; much faster than when Kobe first came into the league. Kobe played a lot years under the triangle (offense), which is a slower game. These kids today are really flying up and down the floor. So we travel to more cities, but the travel’s better. We stay in Ritz Carltons. We fly in a beautiful Delta charter jet. When I broke in we flew commercial. And you couldn’t get a flight out after the game, so you had to get up at 5 or 6 a.m., and the league rule was that you had to take the first flight out to get to the next city to play a back-to-back game. There weren’t always first-class seats for everybody. Dr. (Jerry) Buss was a good enough man that he would buy three seats for two people, so it gave you more space, but it gave you horizontal space instead of vertical space, which is really what they needed. And I had to know which knee was hurt, so for Mitch (Kupchak) I’d have to give him a seat so he could put his left knee in the aisle. For James Worthy I’d have to give him a seat for his right knee in the aisle. So the travel’s better in terms of the planes and the hotels. The nutrition’s better in terms of the science, quality and source of the food. The practice is better because we have practice sites now, where before we were bouncing around from place to place. Everything is better. The training is better. The shoes are better. The one thing that has really, really changed is the speed of the game. So now you’ve got the attrition over a lifetime; the law of averages that increases with increased years; and you have a kid that is that age that is playing against young kids that are playing at a really higher rate of speed — even faster than (Bryant) was at that age. So trying to keep up with the pace of the game puts you in a compromised position.
MT: We discussed this some last summer, but to reiterate, with players becoming stronger and faster every year, there is more torque involved, which leads to more injuries, right?
Vitti: Absolutely. Your body doesn’t like an eccentric load — and that is what’s occurring in your muscles; they’re actually lengthening when you’re trying to slow down. (A few NBA players) can go full speed coming at you and stop on a dime and (go) left, right or straight up – and I mean straight vertical, not even lean forward. The speed of the game is being played at the precipice of being in control, but if somebody steps in front of you — and you don’t make that perfect move so that the loads are being transferred from your torso to the lower extremities — then stuff’s going to happen along the kinetic chain, and it’s going to go to the weakest link in that chain. That is what’s going to break down. We don’t know where that is. We try to train the whole kinetic chain to handle the loads, and I think for the most part we do a pretty good job. Basically, a guy like Kobe is going to have to play at a speed, but also stay under control at all times, because he’s got the other two factors – miles and minutes.
MT: Minutes were a problem for Kobe last year, as Byron Scott admitted was his fault early in the season when Bryant was playing 35 per game. How many minutes should Kobe play this year?
Vitti: We don’t know. If he plays 25 minutes, there’s less chance he gets hurt than if he plays 35 minutes. But the 35 minutes, in terms of the shoulder injury had nothing to do with it. I think Byron is going above and beyond by taking the heat. If he played (Bryant) one minute more than he should have, or 10 minutes more, then OK. But the fact is that the injury was trauma-related. Somebody came down on his shoulder.
We did a review of all our injuries last year, and all of the time-loss injuries were trauma-related – people running into other people: stepping on their feet, running into them, etc. The two that weren’t trauma-related were Ryan Kelly straining his hamstring the second practice of training camp. Byron was a new coach with us. We didn’t know how much he was going to do, and he did a lot. You could make an argument that we could have looked at Ryan and (limited him). What may be our fault is that we should have took a better look at him. If we knew how tough training camp was going to be, and very quickly said, “Ryan we may have to hold you back.” But he got hurt early in the second practice. And then Jordan Hill missed five games with a hip flexor strain. He always had issues with that hip flexor. That can happen to anybody. Everything else was trauma-related and not minutes-related. We have an eye in the sky* and every game we know how many accelerations and decelerations that every player has, and the trajectory of those: left, right, front, back. From that, we can tell the average speed that that player played at and how much distance they travelled. That’s going to give us a number that’s important to us, and that number we’re going to call “load.” Every game we look at the load that we put on a player. Then we’re going to take that number and divide it by the minutes they played. And that number reveals us their intensity. If we see a direct linear relationship between load and intensity, we’re good. We’re in a green zone and can keep pushing that player. If we see load going up and intensity starting to plateau, that puts us in a yellow zone that gets our attention, and we have to do something like cutting back his minutes or training. If we really see a dip, then they’re in the red zone. Now we really feel they’re susceptible to injury. We’re looking at some other technologies that give us similar information, and we monitor our players in their way with the science and analytics that are out there right now.
*SportsVU software tracks player movement during games from data obtained by six cameras installed in the catwalks of every NBA arena.
MT: Is there a quick way of summing up Kobe’s health outlook for next season?
Vitti: Don’t know. We’ll have to see how he looks in training camp and then play eight preseason games. Kobe will certainly have input. Byron will have input. I’m sure they’ll both ask me what I think. We’ll have the eye in the sky. We’ll figure it out.
MT: Would you say it’s like using analytics for basketball aspects, where you’re supplementing what you see from just watching the games but obviously not focusing solely on the numbers?
Vitti: A lot of it reinforces what you already see if you’ve been around enough. It’s a hard number that you can bring to a coach or a player and say, “Look, we need to back down on some of this stuff.” You want to push people to play and work as hard as they can and be the best that they can be, but some of the older philosophy of breaking through the wall and keeping high intensity and “no pain, no gain” has changed over the years, because as a player fatigues, we look at three postural distortion patterns. When you fatigue, you go into one, two or all three of these patterns, and your movement efficiency goes down. If you continue to train in the default movement pattern, it makes it harder for us to bring you out of it and put you into neutral. A lot of what we’re trying to do is stay on that edge of where you’re working as hard and fast as you can, but you haven’t crossed over into your fatigue state. You need to be able to work through some fatigue to be mentally tough enough to compete at this level, and you do this with games. But you don’t try to punish them in frivolous practice. It has to be in practice and training when you get a lot of bang for your buck.
MT: Other areas seem to also have changed in a big ways since the 1980’s, like nutrition.
Vitti: Everything has changed, and yes, we’ve come full circle in nutrition. We’ve basically tipped the nutritional pyramid upside down. We try, for the most part, to eliminate all sugar out of our players’ diets for two reasons. One, it’s highly inflammatory. Two, it spikes you in energy, so when you eat something sugary, you get energetic but you get an insulin release and crash. Then you need to get more sugar in your body. We try to eliminate sugar. We’re not eliminating carbs, but we have a much different feeling about loading carbs than we did in the old days. We want them to consume carbohydrates, but it needs to be in moderation, because if it’s not you end up in the same sugar place. The carb becomes sugar and you get an insulin release, crash and need to reload. The difference is we actually want them to consume fat, but it needs to be the right fat. We’re not just saying lard. We want to eliminate toxic oils, so we don’t want them to consume trans fat, but we want good sources of fat, like avocado or salmon. We even want our players to eat red meat and have whole milk and cream. We have Greek yogurt. These things all need to come from the right source. We want meat to come from a cow that’s only consumed mother’s milk and grass. We don’t want corn-fed things. We don’t have a problem with pork, but we want it to be humanely raised pork. We want free-range chicken. I probably went 30 years without milk, butter or egg yolks in my refrigerator. Having cut those things out of my diet, I’ve lost a lot of the nutrients that come from those things. We’re learning now that if you get them from the right source, it’s a good thing to have. One of the main tenants of our nutritional program is having soup made from bone stock. Now we’re finding out things in that bone stock that go into your bones that you need.
MT: Some players want to eat poorly at times, so how do you find that balance?
Vitti: I’ve always said that in all aspects of the NBA, we’re nothing more than a microcosm of society. You’re going to have some players that completely modify their behavior. You’re going to have some guys that will partially modify their behavior, which is an improvement. And then you have some guys that don’t do anything. You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. Some people perform very well. I think over time and in life it catches up to you. This isn’t just about performance. I care about these guys in their older age and the high incidents of diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary disease. The time to start in your life is now. I grew up without desserts. My mother was all about moderation. You might get a chocolate chip cookie, but you wouldn’t get a bag of them.
MT: I’ve had several discussions with you and (strength and conditioning coach) Tim (DiFrancesco) about my Mountain Dew consumption. I love the taste. I get that it’s empty calories and the sugar is bad for me, but I’ll rationalize it as, ‘I drink a ton of water so if I only have 12 ounces a day, it’ll filter right through me.’ I know I’m wrong and I should probably just stop drinking it, but what’s the balance? Would having three cans a week be that much better?
Vitti: The truth is, you shouldn’t have any.
MT: Just like you inspired Kobe to shave his head, you’ve inspired me to not drink pop – what we call it in Minnesota – for three weeks while you’re in Italy.
Vitti: Why don’t we do this: I’m a big believer in baby steps. Maybe you just wean yourself off it. I’m going to be in Italy for three weeks. Open up a can every day, and for the first seven days you only drink 2/3 of the can. In week two, throw another 1/3 away. In the third week, you’ll be off it.
MT: OK Gary, I’ll give it a shot. I’m with it. Meanwhile, you have a young player, 20-year-old Julius Randle, who’s already modifying his diet and has lost a lot of weight over the last several months. How would you summarize his progression since the leg fracture and foot operation?
Vitti: The (Summer League) minute limit was absolutely by design. The first goal was just to play in Summer League, whether that’s one minute or 20 minutes. The second goal is to be unrestricted by (the start of) training camp. The third goal is to be unrestricted by the (start of the) regular season. We reached the first goal. We didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the first goal, which was to play. The second goal, how do we get there? It’s like a GPS system. You have to have two things in order for it to work. The GPS works only if you know where you are and you know where you’re going. We know where we are and we know where we’re going. We’re going to continually load that bone over the next few weeks. The more we load, the stronger it becomes. Then we’re going to de-load for a week, and then we’re going to start progressively loading it again. We put it down on paper, so management and our doctors know. We have a week-by-week plan, and our second goal is to have him be able to do everything the first day of training camp. Now, we will not sacrifice to meet that goal. So if we’re loading and he becomes symptomatic or feels pain … that’ll give us basically one year of healing from the surgery, and that should be it.
MT: How do you go about convincing Randle to trust the process? I know he wasn’t pleased with the restrictions during Summer League, as he repeatedly expressed his “frustration.”
Vitti: He was really pissed and frustrated, so he called me. I texted, ‘Julius, just saw you called. If you want to chat, great. If you want to play tomorrow (in the back-to-back) or you want more minutes, have a nice day off. Use it to recover. Keep it in perspective. It’s your first game back, and it’s a Summer League game. The NBA is a marathon, not a sprint. I love you for wanting to do more. Some day you’ll love me for wanting you to do less.’ That’s what I sent to him, and he didn’t respond. So then he played in the third game, and he was pissed. Then I hit him again and said, ‘Look, I know you’re frustrated with the minute restriction and how hard it is to get in a rhythm. Don’t focus on it too much. Don’t force it. Slow down. Let the game come to you. Once it does, then you can turn up the speed under control. You’ll be fine, and one day this will be a distant memory. Trust me on this.’ Then he responded, “Got you, G. Thanks.’ Then he played another game and did pretty well. I said, ‘Much better. Proud of you.’ And then after the last game, you could see he was pissed. I said, ‘Every journey begins with the first step. Congratulations, you just took it. Next goal: training camp.’ So that’s how you tell him.
MT: Players have an increasing amount of power in today’s game. Have you always felt that the training room is exempt from that?
Vitti: I will and have drawn a line in the sand at times. I have been fortunate in the sense that I feel like I’m symbiotic with our doctors and management. Our management understands that we don’t put players out there that would jeopardize their career. I think that there needs to be some trust that’s created, not just with the player today, but with the agent. If you always err on the side of protecting the player, you’ll always be OK.
MT: What are your thoughts on D’Angelo Russell? He’s only 19, but how does the process of developing his body go?
Vitti: There are some things that we’ve discussed. There are some physical weaknesses he has that show up on his evaluation, and we’re working on those things. That’s why he’s here in this last week of July when most players don’t show up until sometime after Labor Day. He wants to be good and work hard. He wants to do everything that he needs to do. He’s 19, he played in high school and one year of college; I think that he saw that the Summer League is a different animal than college, and when he gets into a real NBA game it’ll be that much more. He’s had a great attitude about accepting the weaknesses that have been identified and wanting to correct them and spend the time and effort to do that.
MT: How would you describe your relationship with Mitch Kupchak over all these years?
Vitti: Mitch forgets that I remember him as a player. We’re the same age. We’ve both been here for over 30 years. We’ve built a mutual respect as the relationship changed. I have the utmost respect for Mitch and all the positions that he’s held in his life: player, assistant general manager and general manager. I saw him as a father to his children; as a husband to his wife; as a son to his mother and father; and a friend. I think that Mitch and Jimmy (Buss) get too much blame when things go wrong and not enough credit when things go right. He’s a secretive guy. So you kind of know when to be close to him and when not to. If I’m in his office and he gets a certain type of phone call, he doesn’t tell me to leave; I just know. A lot of the stuff that goes on back there, you can be accused of being the leak if you know.
MT: How do you think things are shaping up under Dr. Buss’ children having seen them grow up as he ran the team?
Vitti: Dr. Buss has left his legacy in two ways. One, I’m living proof of the loyalty that the children have extended after Dr. Buss passed, and their commitment to the team. They not only didn’t sell the team, which they could and I’m sure make a lot of money, but they would rather work and re-create a championship atmosphere that’s been their father’s legacy. And part of that is building this new building. If you could see the design and what they’re putting into this and the commitment to excellence in this building, you can see they’re sinking their heart, soul and money into the future of this franchise.
MT: To return to where we started, what will you miss most from holding the head athletic trainer position, and what makes leaving easier?
Vitti: The part of the job that you miss is the camaraderie with the coaches and players and people you meet along the way. It’s a constant barrage of people that need something. They aren’t coming because they want something. They’re coming because they need something. It’s all encompassing. My phone is on 365 days a year, 24 hours, seven days a week. I get calls in the middle of the night. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. If you’re going to do the job right, that’s the way you have to do it. But if you give that kind of effort to the job, then it’s taking away from some of the other things in life. My daughters (Rachel and Emilia), had a great mother (Christine), and I would never have been able to stay in the NBA if I didn’t know they were OK at home. Now Christine is gone. She passed away nine months ago. Not that you can make up for lost time, but what’s worth more than anything to me is my time. I want for nothing in life. I’m not looking for a bigger house, a nicer car or a boat — the only thing I want is more time with my loved ones. That’s just what I want. I’d like to stay involved, but at a lesser capacity so that time goes someplace, with my wife, Martha*, and my children. I like spending time with them. I not only love my wife and my kids, I like them. Not just because they’re my family — I really like these people.
*Vitti remarried several years ago and resides with Martha in Manhattan Beach.